A provisional highlight of the Trafalgar Campaign – The Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1805

22 July 1805, the provisional highlight of the Trafalgar Campaign was fought between a squadron of Admiral Robert Calder’s 15 British and Villeneuve’s 20 Franco-Spanish ships-of-the-line during the indecisive Battle of Cape Finisterre off Galicia.

“I do not say the French cannot come – I only say they cannot come by sea" (Admiral of the Fleet John Jervis, 1st Earl of St Vincent, in August 1805)

The Scottish marine painter William Anderson’s (1757–1837) imagination of “Admiral Sir Robert Calder's Action off Cape Finisterre, 23 July 1805“

Jacques-Noël Sané was a genius of a shipbuilder. His specialty were sleek but powerful ships-of-the-line, manoeuvrable like frigates, straight-lined with curved sides and their sterns, the most vulnerable part of a wooden sailing warship, blending into their hulls to provide their enemies with as small a target for raking fire as possible. Unfortunately, some, if not most of his creations were not exactly lucky ships when they flew the French Tricolour. Of his 8 80-gun third-rate “Tonnant”-class ships-of-the-line, the lead ship being launched in October 1789 and the last four years later, all but one were captured by the British and taken into service of the Royal Navy or sunk. One, beginning her career as “Guillaume Tell” in 1796, a veteran and one of the few French survivors of the Battle of the Nile where her sister “Franklin” was forced to surrender, was brought to bay by an overwhelming force, battered to a wreck and captured in 1800, repaired and commissioned as HMS “Malta” in 1801. It seemed her bad cess would hold. She almost burned to the waterline due to an unfortunate accident, was repaired and re-commissioned and finally sailed with Calder’s squadron off Ferrol. When the Battle of Cape Finisterre began and everybody was confused in the dense fog and the growing dark, she found herself all of a sudden surrounded by five enemy ships-of-the-line and the fiercest engagement of the dispersed battle began. About 8 o’clock in the evening, her broadsides had forced the Spanish 84-gun “San Rafael” to strike along with the 74-gun “Firme” and the other three battered French battleships disappeared in the fog. “Malta”, on the other hand, had lost all her masts but only 5 men dead and 40 wounded of her crew of 700 officers, men and boys.

Tonnant-class HMS “Canopus”, formerly known as “Franklin”, in British service from 1798 until broken up in 1887, a real credit for a ship builder.

"Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world." Napoleon said and prepared his invasion of England by taking up the idea of a “rush across the Channel”, even though the plan had already failed miserably during the 1790s. He began building gunboats and landing craft by the thousands along the coast, together with the construction of harbour installations in Boulogne on a rather dramatic scale and assembled an army 150,000 strong, prematurely called Armée d'Angleterre , financed by the sale of French Louisiana to the US in 1803. Ironically enough, Brother Jonathan had loaned the money, by and large, from the British Baring Brothers Bank, while Napoleon dreamed of digging a tunnel under the Channel or establishing a beachhead on the other side by an aerial landing via balloon. In the end, it was the job of the French Navy, bolstered by their new Spanish allies, to at least distract the Royal Navy and give Napoleon his six hours. Unfortunately, the French Atlantic fleet was bottled up safely in Brest by superior British squadrons with hardly a chance of escape, but the Mediterranean Fleet under Villeneuve managed to slip out from Toulon with 11 ships-of-the-line under the nose of Nelson, gathered two French strays and the Spanish Admiral Gravina’s 6 Spanish battleships and break out into the Atlantic. The allied fleet sailed for the West Indies. It took Nelson four weeks to learn of Villeneuve’s whereabouts, he decided to pursue, made the Atlantic crossing in a record time of just another four weeks and when Villeneuve heard the news of Old Nel’s arrival in Barbados, he decided to head back for Europe. The two squadrons missed each other off Antigua by just one day. Nelson decided to intercept Villeneuve at Gibraltar, while the allies sailed to the North, for Cape Finisterre and Ferrol and finally for the Bay of Biscay. On 30 June, however, they were sighted, and, battered by the notoriously bad weather, exhausted and with few provisions left, Villeneuve was intercepted by Calder’s 15 ships-of-the-line who had patrolled between Rochefort and Ferrol.

A contemporary illustration of Napoleon “Inspecting the Troops at Boulogne, 15 August 1804“ 

“But in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”, Nelson once wrote. When both Calder and Villeneuve had manoeuvred for several hours and dense fog came down as soon as the action began in earnest around 5 pm, that was exactly what was left for the captains of both squadrons to do and the battle lines disintegrated into a confused melee, that of HMS “Malta” and her five opponents along with several other duels, leaving Calder’s two 2nd-rates, “Windsor Castle” and “Prince of Wales” along with the 3rd-rates “Hero”, “Thunderer” and, of course, “Malta”, one third of the British squadron, considerably damaged. And there was the securing of the two prizes to think of, each worth at least £20,000, about £20,000,000 buying power in today’s money. Calder chose not to fight Villeneuve on the two following days and withdrew while Villeneuve finally sailed for Cádiz, his last refuge before the Battle of Trafalgar that took place in October. But by then, Napoleon had already lost patience with tunnels, balloons and his admirals. In August 1805, he withdrew the former Armée d'Angleterre from the Channel Coast to fight the Prussians.

And more about the Battle of Cape Finisterre on:

William Anderson: “Admiral Sir Robert Calder's action off Cape Finisterre, 23 July 1805'. … This shows the day after the action, 24 July. British frigates have Calder’s two prizes, the Firme and the San Raphael, under tow on the right and the damaged Windsor Castle, too, on the left. Calder’s fleet is in formation in the centre and the departing enemy in the distance” (Royal Museums Greenwich)